The Angry Corrie 52: Dec 2001 - Feb 2002
A book for the boot boys (Hazard's Way review)
Hazard's Way has just won the two biggest prizes in the world of mountain literature, so it has to be a good read, yes?
WRITING ABOUT books you love or hate is easy: you either rave wildly, or put the Sympatex boot in. It's those that don't leave a strong impression either way, like this one, for which a review becomes one of those "things to do" that never gets ticked off the list. I started writing this well before I knew that Hazard's Way had even been nominated for, let alone won, both this year's Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature and the Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Book Festival. The one "customer review" I found on Amazon described it as "amazing - a must-read". Well, not for this reader it wasn't.
Halfway through and it felt like a chore, one of those A-level texts like The Rainbow that had to be plodded through before I could get back to what I wanted to read. Not that I'm a big fan of "mountain literature": I found even Joe Simpson's Touching the Void rather clunky, although a radio interview with him telling the same story was totally compulsive listening - some people are just better heard than read. Nor am I even a great lit-crit practitioner. On the other hand, I do read a lot of novels, and I do come from the Ponds, where much of the book is set.
Hazard's Way is set at the time of the Boer War, but begins with a prologue about a memorial service on Great Gable in 1924 for climbers who died in the Great War. The rest of the story is told by the eponymous Hazard as one long flashback; hence the elegiac tone that pervades throughout, as the narrator looks back to the "halcyon days" of his youth, "in that morning when the world was young", before the fall - literal and metaphorical. Hubank mixes real and imaginary characters, although my ignorance of historical climbers meant that only a quick trawl of the index to Harry Griffin's The Coniston Tigers confirmed many of them as the former. Others make brief appearances apparently just for effect - for example Aleister Crowley after "the Kangchenjunga incident" (whatever that may have been, because Hubank doesn't tell us).
It's a nice-looking book, with a deliberately old-fashioned typeface and punctuation to match its period and language. A straightforward period novel; no clever literary devices. I found the early stages more promising than I'd anticipated, particularly descriptions such as that of my own favourite train journey, "the little toy train chuffing in and out along the coast of Morecambe Bay", and of the "obscure inn" in Wasdale familiar from Harry Griffin's reminiscences. Some lovely evocations: divers on an evening Blackmount loch, Wasdale on a clear winter's day. It was the characters that I found more problematic. Hazard loves climbing, hates the medical training to which he's committed himself, but is too scared of his overbearing father to drop out until almost qualified, and swithers between the views of his patriotic pater and anti-war sister on the righteousness of British actions in the Boer War. Somehow he doesn't quite come into focus for me, doesn't seem real. Maybe this is what the Boardman Tasker citation describes as his "trying to find himself, shedding illusions about his family, his country, even the dreamy notion of Wasdale as a haven free of discord or intimations of mortality".
Many of the other men appear as caricatures: the hearty schoolteacher, the authoritarian father. Apart from the bolshie sister, women are shadowy, feeble, alien creatures - an attitude authentic to the times, no doubt, and producing such comments as: "what could a woman know of our rough-and-tumble sports, the good-humoured banter, the laughter of young men at home in their world and at ease with one another?" There is much talk of "high jinks and japes" and "manly courage", ideas difficult to take entirely seriously these days for those of us brought up on Michael Palin's Ripping Yarns rather than Henty and Ballantyne, though again true to the period.
Looking at the list of judges for this year's Boardman Tasker, and the previous winners back to 1984, the predominance of men is striking, if not surprising (only four women winners in 18 years). I couldn't help wondering if this was a boy's own story judged by boys, and whether an alternative female panel, à la Orange Prize, would come up with a different result. Then I look at the Banff panel and see two women - so maybe it is just me.
In the end, it wasn't the climbing I didn't like: I'd been completely gripped by Manda Scott's Stronger than Death, for instance, despite all the climbing-gear techno-speak. I just didn't care about Hazard, or any of the others. I don't have to like all the people in a novel - I can hate some and wish they come to a bad end - but some books I've stopped reading because, frankly, I didn't give a damn what happened to any of the characters. I read to the end of this one, but Hazard lost me somewhere along his way.
Hazard's Way, by Roger Hubank
Ernest Press 2001, 248pp, ISBN 0 948153 63 6, £12